In the comments on a TPM Café piece on Barack Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Christian right, I ran across this fascinating passage from Exodus 21:22-25 (New International Version):
22 If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [or she has a miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
There’s a little ambiguity over what exactly is meant by “gives birth prematurely,” but it seems clear from context — and from the state of medical technology in Biblical times, which would have been insufficient to keep a seriously premature baby alive — that this passage is describing the death of a fetus. (The bracketed interpolation is theirs, not mine.)
A very clear distinction is then made between the killing of a fetus, for which a fine is incurred, and “serious injury,” which can apparently be inflicted only on the living woman, not on the unborn fetus. Fetuses, then, are distinctly in a separate category from actual people. Those who insist that abortion is murder are thus rejecting the legal definitions set forth in the Book of Exodus, which most Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians recognize as the word of God.
Interestingly, this passage is actually used by pro-lifers to support their position because it penalizes the killing of a fetus. That seems unarguable, but based on the above passage, it would seem more Biblically correct to demand a ban on cars and guns than on abortion, because maiming and death as a result of auto and gun accidents is relatively common and clearly considered more serious by the Biblical God than the death of a fetus.
Of course, no such thing will ever happen (or should). Just as a few verses are plucked from the Bible to justify a culturally based revulsion against homosexuality, the Biblical justifications for banning abortion are ex post facto, chosen to support a preexisting political position. (Indeed, this cherry-picking approach is regularly applied by people who consider themselves Biblical literalists. I would be fascinated to see a serious effort to construct a complete world view starting with the Bible and rejecting any outside sources that contradict the Bible — a modern Karaite movement, as it were — but I suppose the many contradictions within the Bible itself would make such an effort nearly impossible.)
Why abortion is so controversial is not an easy question to answer, but the reasons should be sought in the structure of our society today and in its recent history, not in the Bible.
Note: For those who prefer it, the King James version is less ambiguous:
22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.